About The Author
Born in Guyana and raised in Canada, Tessa McWatt is the author of a number of novels and is currently Programme Leader for the Masters course in 'Writing: Imaginative Practice' at the University of East London. Her work has been shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award and Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction. She is also working on a film adaptation of John Berger's To the Wedding, currently in development.
Her most recent novel is Higher Ed, set in today's east London. It follows five characters as they struggle to to make ends meet and follow their dreams, as the full extent of the impact of auterity becomes apparent.
Robin is a film studies tutor worried that his subject may lose its funding. Olivia is one of his students, full of anxiety about the realities of dating and sex. Katrin is a Polish waitress, whom Robin is smitten by. Ed is Olivia's estranged father, battling for the dignity of those who die alone at a council-run crematorium. Francine is behaving increasingly bizarrely in the aftermath of witnessing a fatal traffic accident.
We're grateful to Laura from Novel Kicks – a terrific website full of reviews, interviews and tips for writers – for allowing us to reproduce her interview with Tessa. They discuss the practicalities of telling five characters' stories, how her students and fellow lecturers influenced their creation, and the writers whose unique use of language inspired her.
Questions & Answers
Can you tell us a little about your new book, Higher Ed, and what inspired the novel?
The novel was inspired by teaching in higher education and by current issues of austerity and funding cuts in the public sector. I wanted to examine how in difficult financial times people cope and how these issues affect relationships. I also wanted to see if I could write a novel the way a filmmaker makes a film, by editing elements together that exist separately, outside of the ‘frame’ of one another. So I wrote each character’s story separately and then interwove them in the editing process.
How much planning did you do before beginning Higher Ed? What elements needed to be in place before you started?
I planned to write four different strands of the story and then weave them together. I added the fifth strand because it seemed like the right balance, the right number of voices. I saw the whole thing as a hand, with the five fingers contributing to the whole picture of how we work together. Your book features five people who live in London.
What challenges did you face writing from five people's point of view?
I loved the challenge of writing from five points of view. In each one I had a special relationship with character and voice. The challenge was to make them sound distinct.
Can you describe your typical writing day and do you have any writing rituals?
I don’t have writing rituals, but I usually write better in the morning than in the evening. I tend to write best when I’m away from home, so I do a lot of travelling for first drafts.
Is there a fictional character you’d like to meet and what would you do or talk about?
This is a hard question, not because I don’t have lots of fictional characters that I really love (Pip from Great Expectations, Lila from Lila) but if I love a character it’s probably because he or she is beautifully written, in which case what I’d really like is to meet the author (Dickens, Marilynne Robinson) to discuss the wonder and joy of writing a character.
Do you cast your characters when writing and if so, did you have someone in mind for Francine, Robin, Olivia, Ed and Katrin?
I don’t usually have a particular person in mind when writing a character, but lots of people influence my characters. I will see someone on the street or meet someone only once and they can affect a character I’m developing. The characters of Robin and Olivia are conflations of lecturers and students I have known in the many years of teaching.
Do you have a favourite word?
No, I don’t have a favourite word. There are too many unique, evocative and beautiful words to make one a favourite.
Out of all the books you’ve read, which three are your favourite?
My favourite books change all the time. From my youth when I started to read the ‘great books’ to later adventures into more experimental fiction, I have been affected by authors who use language in unique and courageous ways. One of the books that has continued to inspire me is John Berger’s To the Wedding, which is why I’m currently involved in a film project based on it. Right now, two of my favourite books are from contemporary writers who have made me gasp (and cry) with their writing. These include Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows and anything that Marilynne Robinson writes.
What’s your advice for new writers?
Read. Read. Read.